Saturday, April 15, 2006

The new kind of memory

I'm sort of at the tail end now of the reading-Jonathan-Lethem jag, just finished his first novel Gun, with Occasional Music and of course the hazard of reading backward from newest to oldest is that the early ones are disappointing in comparison with the more recent. I liked some things about this, but I couldn't get out of my head a picture of those cheesy scenes in Star Trek: New Generation (man, I loved that show, there was something quite irresistible about it in spite of its slightly shoddy early-90s-ness) when Jean-Luc Picard goes to the holodeck & pretends he's a private eye in a Chandler-Hammett-type world. The tone of the first-person narrative voice doesn't quite work for me, it's too mannered (maybe because I've read too many other homage/pastiche-type noir novels) and I kept feeling like I'd rather have Gibson or Sterling or Stephenson or one of the other more avowedly SF/cyberpunk types instead. (I think Amnesia Moon is Lethem's more successful experiment in this vein.)

What I liked most, I think, was the way the book fills out another aspect of Lethem as a memory artist. At one point the narrator tells the guy who ends up taking the fall for the murder, "I learned a long time ago that my job consists of uncovering the secrets people keep from themselves as much as or more than the ones they keep from each other." And the people in this world are in many cases literally divided from themselves because of the "make" they snort or shoot up, which includes ingredients like Forgettol (or Acceptol or Regrettol) on a base of addictol.

But the sentences that stood out also struck me as slightly self-conscious in a way the later novels don't so often. Here, for instance, in a rather touching scene the narrator is sitting in a car with the beautiful Catherine Teleprompter:

We were both looking out the front window, only I was looking at the reflection of Catherine, and when I found her eyes, I could see she was looking at the reflection of me. And then we were holding hands. It was just like that; one minute we weren't and the next we were. I want to say it made me feel like a schoolboy, but I hadn't done anything like that as a schoolboy. It made me feel like someone else who had done it as a schoolboy and was being reminded of it now. It made the back of my neck flush. It made me nervous as hell.

I like this paragraph, I was touched by it, and I think the schoolboy sentences are convincing as a psychological insight (we are all always having that sort of second-order thinking, at least I am), but it is still true that when I read them I am thinking "that Jonathan Lethem is a mighty clever fellow" rather than really feeling myself to be in the company of private inquisitor Conrad Metcalf. That said, this novel is far superior to the vast majority of what's out there, and Lethem is definitely on my short list of extremely favorite writers. I have bought and given away or loaned out three copies of The Fortress of Solitude since I fell in love with it this past fall, have only bought one copy of Motherless Brooklyn as a present but have been recommending it like a demon to anyone who will listen. This guy is a writer of great genius. Do we know when he's got a new novel coming out? I've got one more old one to read, I think, plus a bunch of stories, but I need the brand-new-big-novel fix....

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